Guest Opinion | The Doctor is in: You belong here: navigating higher education and mental illness

Higher education is hard, but living with a mental illness is harder.

Enrolling in college or graduate school is the first step toward a lifetime of continued education, research, and/or service. However, the experience poses many challenges regarding time management, stress, burnout, and imposter syndrome.

For students with a history of mental illness, the rigors of higher education can be exceptionally anxiety-provoking and discouraging.  Recent estimates show that graduate students are over six times more likely to experience mental health issues, such as anxiety and depression, compared to the general population.

Despite how common mental illness is in graduate school, there remains a lack of narratives produced by students who have chronic mental health concerns. The following three tips have allowed me to prioritize my mental wellness amidst the stressful (but gratifying) environment of higher education:

Have a game plan

Accumulating the tools to stay in recovery for mental illness is necessary before you begin classes. Find a therapist/psychiatrist/care provider in the area or within your school with whom you connect well.

Contemplate how you will make time in your schedule for exercise, journaling, hobbies, and other wellness activities. Although I understand the hesitancy, I do recommend being open with your program about your chronic illness. During the preclinical years of medical school, it was easy for me to make time for my medical appointments, but this became more challenging while working in the hospital and rotating through various specialties.

Advocating for myself and what I needed early on allowed me to make accommodations that fit my schedule. Prioritizing my health and being honest, vulnerable, and unashamed has invited my school to partner with me and support me through this journey.

Ground yourself in the present

Grounding yourself in your present life can provide motivation for continuing to prioritize what you need. Remind yourself of the blessings associated with pursuing higher education and your career goal.

This was likely a dream that you have worked extremely hard for. On the difficult days, hold on to the blessings and find confidence in the skills that allowed you to reach this point.

Give yourself credit

The current perception of mental illness limits individuals. I believe living with a mental illness serves as proof to the world, and to ourselves, how capable we are.

Living with a mental illness is a full-time job that is psychologically draining. Handling a demanding course load while doing so is an incredible feat. If anyone belongs in higher education, it is you. Your experiences are extremely challenging in this environment, but just know the empathy and insight imparted on you during this journey through recovery will have lasting impacts on the people you interact with.

Having to live with a mental illness is exhausting. The thought of staying in recovery while balancing a higher education program can seem impossible, but with support and proper planning, you can thrive in both. Do not underestimate your abilities and the difference you can make in the world through living out your dream. You belong here.

Crisis Hotlines:

National Suicide Hotline Number: 1-800-273-8255

National Grad Crisis Line: 877-427-3457

University of Iowa Counseling Services: 319-33-5-7294, [email protected]

-Stephanie Saey, third-year UI medical student

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